Comments on “Buddhist morality is Medieval”

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Malaclypse 2015-09-26

Buddhism theoretically (then and now) doesn’t need an explicit ethical system, or code of morality. Each yana has an ethos of its own (I believe you would call that principle), as well as a pragmatic expression (function), which in turn finds explicit expression in particular cultural or situational circumstances. This didn’t stop many throughout history and geography to claim their favorite ethics or moral scruples to be “Buddhist ethics”, not recognizing they are reducing some Buddhist notion to a culturally conditioned set of values, whether it’s tribalism, nationalism or, these days, modernist and postmodernist obsessions. On the other hand, the argument of “training rules” may have several dimensions. The intention behind specific injunctions is not just to train a set of behaviors that reduces in-group and social friction (as with many vinaya rules) thus creating favourable conditions for some forms of practice, or to establish basics of propriety and decency that facilitate character building (as with shila) - these, as you rightly point out, belong to fairly basic stages in moral development as proposed by contemporary researchers (to say children outgrow such levels of morality is a bit simplistic, since it’s a complex matter, parts of personality being on various levels, and the whole personal system can significantly shift with circumstances, envirnoment, and various states of mind and body). The intention is also be to spur awareness of volitional dynamics by frustrating or counteracting particular knots in the system. And this goes back to ethos. When it comes to espoused ethical formulations and moral principles of right and wrong, mainstream Buddhism was and remains fairly adaptive, its institutions mirroring the prevailing social circumstances and cultural conventions (even if only those limited to the group of those who self-identify as Buddhists). The ethics and morality of those few who practiced deep awareness and radical compassion have often been at odds with such mainstream Buddhism, as evidenced in their criticism of what was then mainstream Buddhism (same now with our contemporaries). Comparing traditional scripture (a product of manifold influences) with modern apologetics, and sifting the results with critical historiography, is a good method of delineating Buddhist identity politics. Thanks for your good work:)

nannus 2015-09-27

To what degree are the moral rules of traditional Buddhist societies actualy derived from Buddhist teachings? Coming from a culture that, in its pre-modern state, had a moral theology in which moral was a corollary of religion, we might think of religion and moral/ethics as belonging together but I think in many pre-modern societies (as in modern society as well) they are not. There is, of course, some arbitrariness in the way phenomena in a society are delimited. You will in most cases be able to find something that can be called a religion and something that may be called moral or ethics. It is then always possible to lump the two together, but I think this has to be justified. If a culture does not actually derive its moral rules from its religious belief system (and that is a problematic concept as well) I think one should not connect the two. In traditional Christianity, there definitely was a connection. In Judaism there are God-given laws plus all of the Talmudic literature that has grown around them, in Islam it is hard to separate the religion from the Sharia law system (which poses a problem for Muslims who want to adopt a less archaic kind of ethics), but in many cultures, the two areas (ethics/moral/laws on one side, religious beliefs and cult practices on the other) are more or less separate. I do not know very much about Buddhism, so let me ask the question: how is the connection in Buddhist societies: is there an intrinsic connection between those aspects of those cultures that could be called “religion” (if the term makes any sense here) and those that can be called moral, ethics or traditional law. Do the moral systems derive from the religious teachings (or, in case they are historically older, which they probably are, are they at least justified on the basis of the religious teachings, or are these separate or separable aspects of these cultures?

David Chapman 2015-09-27

nannus & Malaclypse — your thoughtful comments both raise the question “is there any strong connection between religion and ethics/morality” and suggest the answer is “no.” I agree. My view is that traditional Buddhism never had much to say about ethics/morality—it didn’t consider that part of its remit—which is one reason among several that “Buddhist ethics” is a non-thing.

However, my next post will explain that Buddhism was reinvented as being nothing other than a system of ethics during the Victorian period. And modern Consensus Buddhism is based mainly on that Victorian reinvention. So it claims that ethics is half of Buddhism (the other half being meditation).

Pobop 2015-09-28

Well, there was something like “just war” in japanese buddhism before the second world war. Though you probably refer to traditional buddhism. This japanese buddhist development had all kinds of messy ties to state shinto and re-interpreted bushido, was probably borrowed from westeners, and mainly conceived to justify attacking the chinese, so I guess this just proves your point. And indeed it was framed as compassion. It’s a good example of how not to do intentionalist ethics.

Chapter 8 of Zen at war (p.93), Brian Victoria quotes Soto Zen master Hata Esho:
“Buddha Shakyamuni, during his religious practice in a former life, participated in a just war. Due to the merit he acquired a result, he was able to appear in this world as a Buddha. Thus, it can be said that a just war is one task of Buddhism.”

Other than that, in many places in this article you say there’s a lot of scriptural support for x and y, it would be really handy if you could mention a few representative samples.

fripsidelover9110 2015-09-30

“commonly verboten are solo and partner masturbation, oral and anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime, and sex with a woman who is pregnant or nursing. Abortion is murder, and sends you straight to hell. On the other hand, polygamy is taken for granted, and”

commonly? Are you talking about precepts for Buddhist monks? probably not since you say “polygamy is taken for granted.” (unless you are mixing up the two - precepts for monks and for lay Buddhist)

Assuming that you are talking about traditional Asian Buddhism and its precepts for lay Buddhists, your claim is dubious. I’m reasonably well versed with South Korean Buddhist tradition and Buddhism in general (because I’m a South Korean, and often read Buddhist literature including modern scholarly ones), but as far as I know, traditional Korean Buddhism has not been concerned about specific code of sex for lay Buddhists. Buddhist monks may say from time to time “keeping precepts matters, so no sexual misconduct please- usually understood as No Extramarital Sex”, but that’s nearly all. Neither monks nor lay Buddhists talk about masturbation, oral, anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime and sex with a woman who is pregnant.

Furthermore, many of east Asian Buddhist countries (Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Japan) would not be so different from Korea, when it comes to traditional Buddhist code of Sex for lay Buddhists.

I’m very curious where you got the idea that traditional Asian Buddhism ‘commonly’ have been concerned about details of sexual conduct of lay Buddhists.

“married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK according to some (not all) major traditions”

Which major traditions do you mean?

David Chapman 2015-09-30
Are you talking about precepts for Buddhist monks?

No, this is about rules for laypeople. I’m relying primarily on Cabezón’s article (linked in mine), which says everything I said here. While doing research for this series, I read many other sources on Buddhist sexual morality, but didn’t keep as good notes as I should have, so it would take some work to find other answers.

Cabezón is writing primarily about Tibetan Buddhism, which is also the type I know most about. He says that all these same prohibitions are found in Indian texts, and I assume that’s right because he’s a reputable scholar, but I don’t know the specifics.

I’m reasonably sure I’ve read that Theravada has more-or-less the same teachings, and can probably find a reference for that if it’s important.

I know much less about East Asian Buddhism than about either Tibetan or Theravada. I know that it’s generally quite different, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the teachings on sexual morality were different.

“married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK according to some (not all) major traditions” — Which major traditions do you mean?

Certainly in Tibetan Buddhism. This was explicitly endorsed by the Dalai Lama in 1997. (To the consternation of some Western Buddhists.)

The Pali literature is all-around anti-sexual, so it’s anti-prostitution just because that’s sex. However, in various places there are lists of categories of women you shouldn’t have sex with (if you insist on having sex with someone), and these don’t include prostitutes. The best discussion seems to be in Steven Collins’s 2007 “Remarks on the Third Precept: Adultery and Prostitution in Pali Texts,” for which I don’t have the full text. A summary from the web, however:

if a woman is not under any specific protection, neither of the two is at fault for having “an affair”, such is the case, for example, with a prostitute, a widow, or a divorced woman.

Several scholarly sources say that the point of third precept is that sex with unsuitable women is a transgression against the woman’s owner/protector (not against the woman). Thus, as long as you pay the fee, there is no transgression against the owner/protector of a prostitute, and so it’s fine.

Sabio Lantz 2015-09-30

Superb and brilliantly informative like the rest of this series. Thank you so much.

David Chapman 2015-09-30

I would be happier if I could locate the Indian texts that Cabezón relied on, and am doing some work on that now. In the mean time, two quotes from Serinity Young’s Courtesans and Tantric Consorts:

early Buddhism defined laymen as independent agents who do not break precepts when they have sex with their wives, prostitutes, or any woman not defined by her rela- tionship with another man or under a religious vow. Buddhism never defined marriage, preferring instead to accept what- ever forms of marriage it met with as it spread through various Asian societies, among them monogamy, polyandry, and polygamy. Nor did it ever condemn concubinage or prostitution, though as we shall see, it did condemn individual prostitutes—but not their clients.

fripsidelover9110 2015-10-06

if a woman is not under any specific protection, neither of the two is at fault for having “an affair”, such is the case, for example, with a prostitute, a widow, or a divorced woman.

Several scholarly sources say that the point of third precept is that sex with unsuitable women is a transgression against the woman’s owner/protector (not against the woman). Thus, as long as you pay the fee, there is no transgression against the owner/protector of a prostitute, and so it’s fine.

==> not against the woman? You seem to imply that Buddhist tradition was O.K with rape unless there is no protector or owner of a woman. But are you sure of it?

David Chapman 2015-10-06
You seem to imply that Buddhist tradition was O.K with rape unless there is no protector or owner of a woman. But are you sure of it?

I am not sure. I’d be interested to read more about this. As far as I can remember, nothing I read involved any concept of female consent, which would suggest that there was no concept of rape as that is understood in contemporary ethics. But I don’t know.

fripsidelover9110 2015-10-06

“I am not sure. I’d be interested to read more about this.”

a Sankrit source of early Buddhist Sutra (Pali cannon is not the only source of the early Buddhism as you may know), clearly states that Rape is BAD.

“Some who have committed sexual misconduct..... because she has been already obtained by somebody else and is thus somebody else’s woman, or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her. “

David Chapman 2015-10-06

Oh, good, thank you very much!

neunder 2015-10-20

Could you recommend a book or article for the Buddhist position on torture?

David Chapman 2015-10-20

Not specifically, no… while doing the research for this I did some casual googling, found that some Buddhist authorities have given Buddhist arguments to justify torture, but didn’t follow up beyond that. Torture was advocated specifically because killing is a Buddhist no-no.

The torture and execution of the liberal Tibetan politicians Lungshar and Reting during the power struggle after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death are interesting cases.

Tsepon Lungshar, an official educated in England introduced reform in the 1920s; after losing a political struggle the reformist was sentenced to be blinded by having his eye-balls pulled out. "The method involved the placement of a smooth, round yak's knucklebone on each of the temples of the prisoner. These were then tied by leather thongs around the head and tightened by turning the thongs with a stick on top of the head until the eyeballs popped out. The mutilation was terribly bungled. Only one eyeball popped out, and eventually the ragyaba had to cut out the other eyeball with a knife. Boiling oil was then poured into the sockets to cauterize the wound."

The details are not necessarily representative, but judicial torture and mutilation was standard and officially condoned by religious authorities in Tibet for centuries. I believe the same was generally true elsewhere in the Buddhist world, but you’d need to do some googling to check.

Gabriel 2015-11-05

“The ascetic Gotama is a refrainer from damaging seeds and crops. He eats once a day and not at night, refraining from eating at improper times. [13] He avoids watching dancing, singing, music and shows. He abstains from using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, ornaments and adornments. He avoids using high or wide beds. He avoids accepting gold and silver.
[14] He avoids accepting raw grain or raw flesh, he does not accept women and young girls, male or female slaves, sheep and goats, cocks and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses and mares, fields and plots, [15] he refrains from running errands, from buying and selling, from cheating with false weights and measures, from bribery and corruption, deception, and insincerity, from wounding, killing, imprisoning, highway robbery, and taking food by force.” Thus the worldling would praise the Tathágata.

David Chapman 2015-11-05

I assume that you quoted this passage to suggest that Buddhism opposes slavery. It does not support that claim. What it says is that the Buddha did not accept, as personal gifts, anything other than the handful of specific types of gifts that monks are allowed to accept—mainly, cooked food (vs. “raw grain or raw flesh”) and cloth suitable for making monastic robes.

Reputable sources I cited say that there are passages in scripture in which he said that monasteries must accept slaves as gifts to the monastery (as opposed to personal gifts). I have not located these passages myself. (If anyone knows of one, please let us know!)

David Chapman 2015-11-05

Ah, yes, found some, in the chapter “The Monastic Ownership of Servants or Slaves” in Gregory Schopen’s Buddhist Monks and Business Matters. This has lengthy quotes from two different vinayas. In each, the Buddha says that while it is not permissible for an individual monk to accept a gift of slaves, it is required that a monastery accept such a gift, as an institution. The relevant passages are available online, on Google Books.

chris 2015-11-09

I don’t doubt this, but could someone post a reputable source for the Buddha himself accepting slaves as gifts to the sangha? Preferably from the original scripture like the OP says.

David Chapman 2015-11-09

Yes, see Schopen’s piece. I’ve found a version of it as a standalone PDF so you don’t need to fight Google Books to locate the relevant bit. There’s lengthy quotes from two different vinayas. They are somewhat long and complicated, so I won’t copy them in here.

The lengthiness is important because, in the course of long meandering stories about other matters, the two passages clarify the ownership status of the “servants or slaves” involved. Schopen’s topic is not slavery as a moral issue, so he doesn’t discuss that. His interest (in much other work as well) is monasticism as an economic institution; so the issue of whether the slaves are owned by an individual monk or by the monastery corporately is what he cares about.

One of the scriptures he quotes is Bhesajja-khandhaka in the Pali Vinaya, which I’ve linked at Sutta Central. The other, perhaps stronger, one is from the Tibetan edition of the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya. The translation doesn’t seem to be online other than in Schopen’s article.

A 2015-12-16

In Thanissaro Bhikku’s translation of the Digha Nikaya, Discourse 2 Fruits of the Contemplative Life states:

“He abstains from accepting uncooked grain… raw meat… women & girls…
male & female slaves… goats & sheep… fowl & pigs… elephants, cattle, steeds, &
mares… fields & property.”

This is found on page 47 of the edition (dated 150107) currently up on and his translation of the Vinaya says the Commentaries suggest that monks who did accept slaves incurred a dukatta. Ok, it sounds like maybe this was a problem if the Commentaries centuries later were mentioning it, but it seems likely that it was not considered acceptable by the Buddha and the early Sangha to accept slaves.

One point to add, I think it is important not to forget that reforming society or its system of morality/ethics on a large scale was not something the Buddha was interested in doing (personally I think he was too smart to even try and aware that it might destroy the early community if he too overtly criticized many of the people who they were LITERALLY dependent upon to even be able to eat). He was concerned with helping people find freedom in Nibanna, not making this world a nicer place to live. I always remember what Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, basically that the Buddhists who practice “the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma” have always been on the edges of society, and their values have never been broadly reflective of any traditionally “Buddhist” culture, ancient or modern. He has written some interesting pieces on this issue, including some thought provoking quotes from Ajahn Mun on this topic.

Very interesting article…Thanks!

David Chapman 2015-12-16
it was not considered acceptable by the Buddha and the early Sangha to accept slaves

Yes; there are many other passages that say the same. But, as far as I know, all of them (like this one) suggest that it was unacceptable for an individual monk to accept slaves because they are an encumbrance. They don’t say slavery is morally wrong. In this case, slaves are listed along with uncooked grain and raw meat. Those are not immoral. An individual monk should not accept them because then he’d have to cook them, and that’s not his job.

reforming society or its system of morality/ethics on a large scale was not something the Buddha was interested in

Yes, that’s an important point. As I explained elsewhere, this was only added to Buddhism in modernity (and mostly only after 1980).

Alex 2016-03-13

I have been reading this series with interest, though many months behind. I’d like to point out that while you cite the Schopen article as the only evidence that the Buddha “himself” allowed accepting slaves, the article instead argues the opposite:

“The Mulasarvastivadin account of Pilinda would at first seem to presuppose permanent monastic establishments whose repair and maintenance required a large non-monastic work force—notice that both it and the Mahaviharin account concern the gift not of single servants or bondmen, but large numbers… Such establishments, to judge by the archeological record, were not early. It seems, in fact, they only begin to appear around the beginning of the Common Era, and even then were probably not the norm.” (167)

Schopen concludes from his textual analysis of two vinayas that precisely because of their references to slavery neither could have been redacted before the first or second century CE, in other words the same distance in time from the establishment of the sangha as the fall of Constantinople is to us: “But since it also seems that neither account in either vinaya can be early, then it would also appear that references to aramikas and kalpikaras elsewhere in their respective vinayas also cannot be early” (171). So it seems curious to argue that “In most or all Buddhist cultures, monasteries routinely owned slaves,” which isn’t necessary for the larger thesis that Buddhism wasn’t addressed to social issues. Maybe the retort will be that Buddhism is defined as the historical record of diverse texts and practices, and so “early Buddhism” is a construction about which nothing can be known. At least according to Schopen though, one thing that can be known about it it couldn’t have had slaves the way that later communities did.

I look forward to reading more in the series!

David Chapman 2016-03-13

Alex, thanks for a thoughtful comment!

When I said “In most or all Buddhist cultures, monasteries routinely owned slaves,” I meant during periods that are historically well-documented. Especially, this was true as of the time Asian Buddhism and Western modernity first interacted (the 1700s). I think the same was probably true as far back as there are good historical records, meaning back to about 650, but I haven’t looked into that in detail.

“In most or all Buddhist cultures” couldn’t have referred to the period of the Buddha’s life, because Buddhism only existed in a small part of India then.

There is a standard rhetorical move, much used in Buddhist modernism, which is to excuse each defect of actually-existing Buddhism by saying it’s a “later distortion,” and that the “true, original Buddhism” didn’t have that defect. Apologists can get away with this because we don’t know very much (if anything) about Buddhism in the B.C. era. There are essentially no historical records, other than the scriptures. Nearly all Western historians agree that most of the scriptures are fiction, and not reliable guides to B.C. Buddhism, but do not agree about which (if any) are factual.

Schopen is skeptical about the historicity of early Buddhism—i.e. he doesn’t think many, or any, surviving texts reflect it accurately. I’m not knowledgeable enough to have a strong opinion, but based on my limited knowledge, I tentatively agree. I provisionally regard all Buddhist scriptures as fictions.

So, to be precise about what I did and didn’t say earlier… I wrote:

there are passages in scripture in which [the Buddha] said that monasteries must accept slaves as gifts to the monastery

I said that the passages say that the Buddha said that. I don’t regard the scriptures as factual, so I didn’t mean that I thought that meant the Buddha actually said that. (Provisionally, I don’t think the Buddha actually said anything, because provisionally I think he’s a purely fictional character.)

Schopen provides two such passages. Part of his point is that these vinayas must have been written centuries after the Buddha supposedly lived, at a time when conditions were quite different, and the Buddha couldn’t actually have said that. I presume he is right about that.

This is irrelevant to the question of what scripture says. Vinaya is the core part of scripture, as far as Buddhism was actually practiced in Asia. Vinaya does say that the Buddha said that monasteries must accept gifts of slaves.

So, you wrote:

you cite the Schopen article as the only evidence that the Buddha “himself” allowed accepting slaves

But I didn’t say anything about what the Buddha himself actually said; I only talked about what scripture said he said. And, I didn’t cite Schopen for that (although I provided the link so people could check), I cited the two scriptures themselves.

I hope that’s all clear now! Let me know if not.

Alex 2016-03-14

Hi David. Yes, we certainly can’t read these texts as factual records. Just the point that historians and archaeologists maintain that there were communities for hundreds of years before the common era that were in some sense Buddhist, and that they likely couldn’t have held slaves (this is not a doctrinal but an archaeological argument), and that the early Sri Lankan ones didn’t either (Schopen’s reading). I agree these aren’t more authentic than other historical and contemporary communities, but I don’t think they’re less authentic either, and so reading about them factors in my overall thinking about Buddhism and slavery. In reading more through the series I realized that Tibetan Buddhism is the main reference point for your discussion, so thus it makes sense that slavery has to be a central question (touring the Potala palace gives a sobering view of the wealth disparity there and the system that enforced it), and in this context it is relevant to show that it existed already in CE monasteries in India.

Justin 2016-04-08

A few points;

Emphasizing compassion doesn’t seem to me like an absence of an ethical system, it seems like a specific kind of ethics, what (I think) is called virtue ethics. Virtue ethics might not be very good for designing systems which are fair or have good outcomes (like say, non slave owning societies), but that’s not really the point.

There is an important respect in which both Buddhism and Jainism were ethical revolutions in their time, which was the rejection of animal sacrifice, a strong critique of the prevailing Brahmin religion. As far as I can tell, early Buddhism in India advocated animal welfare and vegetarianism which is an area in which modern, western societies are remarkably deficient, although there are ethicists trying to rectify this within the Christian and enlightenment traditions.

Also, though not true for all Buddhisms, there were concepts of ‘just war’ and dharmic kingship. A good place to start might be Iain Sinclair’s “War Magic and ‘Just War’ in Tantric Buddhism”.

If you said that Buddhism’s ethics are nasty, irrational, and hard to swallow for someone versed in the modern enlightenment tradition, and that using Buddhist ethics to prop up feel good, secular progressivism is an ahistorical fantasy, I agree. But keep in mind that the Bible’s endorsement of slavery didn’t prevent many fervent Protestants from working actively and in some cases being martyred to attain its abolition.

Justin 2016-04-08

I can’t go back and edit my comments, but I would like to strike the last point on my previous comment off as unfair. I was only trying to point out that ethics exist as dynamic systems that can become unrecognizable over time; Christian ethics created the basis of enlightenment ethics and, over time, did complete 180s on issues like slavery. How that kind of historical process could be replicated by modern Buddhist ethicists, I have no idea, but simply throwing out Buddhist ethics and replacing them with secular progressivist ones is not the same as subjecting them to the kind of historical evolution in Christian ethics that came about through centuries of scrutiny, discussion, and, in some cases, extremely violent conflict.

David Chapman 2016-04-09

Hi Justin, thanks for the comments!

Emphasizing compassion doesn’t seem to me like an absence of an ethical system, it seems like a specific kind of ethics, what (I think) is called virtue ethics.

Several things to say about this…

  • Keown, at the dawn of Western Buddhist ethical theorizing, claimed that Buddhist ethics are a virtue ethics; but the consensus of later work is that this was clearly untrue, and even he has abandoned it.
  • Compassion is one virtue, but as far as I know, no one has tried seriously to construct a systematic virtue ethics based only on compassion.
  • Actually I'm not sure "systematic virtue ethics" is even a thing in Western moral philosophy. Virtue ethics is sometimes described as whatever vague intuitions are left after you abandon consequentialism and deontology.
  • Compassion-based ethics is not only possible, it's nearly universal: it's what's called a Stage 3 ethics in the Kohlberg/Kegan framework.
  • That kind of ethics is non-systematic. My claim was not that emphasizing compassion leads to the absence of morality, but to the absence of systematicity.
  • Keown explains in some detail, in a paper I referenced, why you can't base a just war theory on compassion.
There is an important respect in which both Buddhism and Jainism were ethical revolutions

I agree! As I said at the end of this post, Buddhist morality is surprisingly good, for a pre-modern religion.

Iain Sinclair’s “War Magic and ‘Just War’ in Tantric Buddhism”

Thanks for this reference! If anyone is interested, it is available at .

This is from 2014. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, it has on contemporary Buddhist just war theory. (None of the sources I used knew about the text he points to.)

Some things worth noting:

  • The just war part of this paper concerns only one, very late, very atypical scripture. It's influential in Tibet but unknown elsewhere, and considered an outlier even within Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, if we are looking for a Buddhist just war theory, and it has one, that is exciting.
  • The just war part of the paper is only two paragraphs (on pp. 161 and 162).
  • The first starts "Here, finally, are clear Buddhist rules for going to war." However, frustratingly, he says very little about what the rules actually are.
  • The Kalacakra Tantra has not been translated into English, so it would take quite a lot of work for me to check. (I can puzzle out Tibetan very slowly with a dictionary.)
  • Given how vague and brief he is about what the text says, and given how badly he seems to want there to be such a thing as Buddhist just war theory, I have to say I suspect he may be engaging in wishful thinking, and reading much more into the text than is actually there.
Christian ethics created the basis of enlightenment ethics and, over time, did complete 180s on issues like slavery. How that kind of historical process could be replicated by modern Buddhist ethicists, I have no idea, but simply throwing out Buddhist ethics and replacing them with secular progressivist ones is not the same as subjecting them to the kind of historical evolution in Christian ethics that came about through centuries of scrutiny, discussion, and, in some cases, extremely violent conflict.

Yes, I agree with this!

Perhaps a genuine modern Buddhist ethics would be possible. I don’t see an obvious way to get there, and I’m not sure it’s something we should want, expect, or care about. But I’m not sure not, either! And I’ve made some preliminary suggestions for what one might look like later in this blog series—particularly here.

BupSahn Sunim 2016-07-15

Interesting article but I can’t help feeling it is wrong to say, “according to scripture, the Buddha himself (after enlightenment) accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.” I do not think this is correct. Can someone provide a source for this if it is indeed correct. Specifically, which scripture indicates the Buddha accepted slaves (after all he forbid monks to do this, even if they didn’t keep the rule).

David Chapman 2016-07-15

Hi, see this comment. Also, we’ve discussed the related issues in other comments in this thread, a number of times. It may be useful to read through the whole thing.

In short, Schopen’s article has lengthy quotes from two different versions of vinaya in which the Buddha himself accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.

after all he forbid monks to do this, even if they didn’t keep the rule

As far as I know, he did not forbid monks to do this, in any scripture. What he forbade was monks accepting gifts of slaves as individuals. That was not a statement of opposition to slavery, but an application of the general rule that monks as individuals cannot accept gifts of most sorts of property. As far as I know, in each of the instances in which he forbade individual monks from accepting gifts of slaves, he simply included slaves among other types of livestock, such as cattle.

Stephen L. Martin 2017-05-09

Thank you for your post. As a Buddhist of 40 years, it will give me plenty to think about. Buddhism has one saving grace though. It isn’t revealed by God and so it isn’t Gospel. The kalama sutra advises you not to believe anything until you find out for yourself that it has merit. I certainly think these problems you point out would be what I would call the unmeritorious aspects of the sutras. My only guess is that having been developed in the iron-age that Buddhism has been tainted with iron-age morality.

Ilya 2017-08-09 deals with morality and deals with effacement - there is not much need to say more than that - morality, is just the first part, the simplest part, of the Buddhist path:

“7. It is, bhikkhus, only to trifling and insignificant matters, to the minor details of mere moral virtue, that a worldling would refer when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata. And what are those trifling and insignificant matters, those minor details of mere moral virtue, to which he would refer?

‘Having abandoned the destruction of life, the recluse Gotama abstains from the destruction of life. He has laid aside the rod and the sword, and dwells conscientious, full of kindness, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.’ It is in this way, bhikkhus, that the worldling would speak when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata.....” (

Why is morality and ethics ‘trifling’? Because for the most part, the Golden rule will see you through, as in the first link. In truth, a combination of the information imperfect Platinum rule ‘do not do unto others that, which you think/feel/believe they would not want to be done unto them.. worst case, ask’, as standard practice and the information perfect Golden rule (self referential) as a lowest limit for action, will do just fine.

Morality, within Buddhist, is well defined. The Buddha considered the moral nexus to lie at the point of intention ( To be within ‘right intention’, one cannot act with ill will or an intention of causing harm, either through thought, speech or action. Kamma, within Buddhism, is solely the accrual of intentional thoughts, speech and actions - if your intentional actions have generally been negative towards yourself or others, then you have ‘bad Kamma’. It’s coming back to you is not a cosmic thing - not an external entity to punish you, but dependent on your behavior - based on the fact you yourself initiated the process through wrong intention (kill someone intentionally, and you will likely have someone dislike you).

Bikkhu Vibhanga rule 3: ‘If a monk intentionally kills a human being or seeks an instrument of death for him or praises death or incites someone to die, saying, “Good man, what’s the point of this wretched and difficult life? Death is better for you than life!”— thinking and intending thus, if he praises death in various ways or incites someone to die— he too is expelled and not in communion.’ .. I have never seen a clearer rule than this.

That Buddhists pick up weapons and kill, sure.. human rights have been used as excuses for interventions around the world too, killing millions (my conspiracy theory is that in a post colonial world, the powers need a tool to have control of the world, and human rights sadly fits the bill).

That Buddhist societies these days can be just as sexist as the West is more of a sign of the underlying conditions between the sexes - 3000 years (Helen of Troy was a landowner, that may have been the time of the end of substantial female power in the West) of male dominance does not die out in a day, especially when men can still hold physical strength over women. Look at Hyenas - the females are larger, so they are aggressive and violent, while the males are subservient. For a rational mind, there is no reason to embrace such evolutionary hierarchy as anything objectively important. But again - 5000 years of cultural history doesn’t change in a night. Even 70 years of communism for a fraction of the world’s population meant Yeltzin had to give the presidency to Putin in ‘99 for fear of a communist rebirth.

The rules for men and women in the vinaya are different, but then men don’t have boobs, nor do they menstruate. That is a shallow way to make a point, but I’m only saying that aspects of experience for men and women can be different. in 400BC, when the Buddha set up the first female monastic order, the world was different. Take rape: 7% of men are rapists now (100k females and 10k males in UK every year are estimated to be raped)..15-30% say they would rape if they knew they would not get caught. Imagine a world where the dead are abandoned at the side of a road, not even buried and a population density of near 0 and no CCTV. Now place into that situation a bhikkhuni who has renounced the world (and all violence). Simply put, you can’t make rules for the rapist (can’t stop him at the time of event, won’t find him later). You must make rules for the potential victim, by engineering a way for them to avoid such situations. Only going for alms during daylight hours is good, not getting too close to the opposite sex is good. for a random rule. Notice the backstory and reasoning. Establishing that the bhikkhuni rule-sets were ‘unfair’ to them relative to the men’s does not take into account the huge gap in time that separates our society from theirs. It does not take into account that theirs was the first order, and societies don’t deal with such massive change well, even now. All the rules have a backstory and reasoning for them too (as in the link to rule 3), so a more subtle analysis would be requested.

The 8 Garudhammas are unfair as we look at them now, that much I agree with. But again, horses for courses, and 500BC is not 2017..

Now! So are the rules outdated to some degree? Of course! Modern Buddhism doesn’t do Anapanasati much, nor is it an ermetic, ‘wandering forest monk’ practice, as was in those days. The Buddha did allow for changes to minor rules before his parinibbana, but sadly no one agrees on what they are! (interestingly, a problem faced by Sunni Islam to some degree, as ijtihad is out of fashion!)

Sex is simply seen as a villagers act for those that have renounced the householder’s life. For the ascetic, it fits in with the whole philosophy of distancing oneself from attachment, aversion and ignorance. For the layperson, sex is not banned, only ‘sexual misconduct’ is. The discrepancy is reasonable: a renunciate’s aim (from the Dhamma) is nibbana, the cessation of mental fermentations, and sex makes the mind run fast. The layperson’s aim from the Dhamma is a good life in the here and now (and a good life on rebirth, one of the heavens or whatnot). There being different goals between the ascetic and the layperson, the path can have some differences.

“Or he might say: ‘Whereas some recluses and brahmins, while living on the food offered by the faithful, engage in frivolous chatter, such as: talk about kings, thieves, and ministers of state; talk about armies, dangers and wars; talk about food, drink, garments, and lodgings; talk about garlands and scents; talk about relatives, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, and countries; talk about women and talk about heroes; street talk and talk by the well; talk about those departed in days gone by; rambling chit-chat; speculations about the world and about the sea; talk about gain and loss — the recluse Gotama abstains from such frivolous chatter.”

‘I only teach suffering and the end of suffering’, as the Buddha says. Castes, slaves etc are of no concern to the path.

Once a person decides to be a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, their social status is no longer of any concern. The path is an individual path, because there is an acknowledgment that one always has the power to change themselves, but rarely the power to change others.. ‘trying to control the world, I see you won’t succeed’ for a Lao Tzu take on it!

It is an error to look at the message and the people following the message and Essentially link the two - there is a correlation, but it is never 100% (at least not within our stochastic experience). To say ‘Buddhist kill therefore the Buddhist morality is flawed’ is cool, but to say ‘Buddhist kill therefore the Buddha’s morality is flawed’ is not inherently accurate. The west for the last 70 (300?) years has had a wonderful hypothetical morality, as defined within philosophical writings and later the first generation human rights (and some second generation too). But look at us - we continue to rape Africa for $$, bomb anyone with oil, to ‘spread democracy’, and bomb everyone else who we generally don’t like. We sanction whole populations (cut off the free market to them), and expect them to like us (South Korea’s policy at the moment is ‘sanctions and discussions’ - you what?!? reminds me of an even stronger than strong interpretation of 4:34 within the Quran - ‘I beat you and you will talk to me’).

Now you say ‘not in my name’, and sure, it is not (representative democracy guarantees a right to shout, but not to be heard or listened to). But the Buddha would have said the same thing - ‘not in the name of the Dhamma, not in the name of the Buddha, not in the name of the Sangha’.

Anyways, as your title says - ‘Buddhist’ morality is medieval. But the Dhamma as expounded by the Buddha - not his followers - is not. In fact, it is only in 1996 that Rovelli did the same for our modern western thought with the anatta that relational QM brings about (, as the Buddha did for thought 2500 years ago. I this sense, the modern world is only just arriving at the three marks of existence and the First Noble Truth.

Hi David, you wrote

“No, this is about rules for laypeople. I’m relying primarily on Cabezón’s article (linked in mine), which says everything I said here. “

Where does Cabezon claim that Buddhism recommends complete celebacy for lay people? It appears to me that you seriously misrepresented both Cabezon’s writing and the Buddhist teachings. A rectification would be in order in my opinion.

There is a whole lot of nuissance missing...and what about Ashoka?

Jay 2021-08-12

I’m rather shocked that this article at no point mentions that Ashoka the Great banned “slavery” in India. He was a lot closer to the Buddha’s own time than any of the monasteries that “owned slaves” to which you speak of.

Also, it is obvious that the “serfs may as well be slaves” argument is false. Serfs had rights and their status was somewhat in flux. Simple treating all “slaves” as equal is absurd. The artist formally known as Prince considered himself a “slave” to his record company because of the contractual obligations he backed himself into. Would it be fair to conflate him living in a mansion with super-model girlfriends to a chattel slave in the Antebellum South? Likewise, would it be fair to treat a member of the bound peasantry in Tibet to what we consider a slave in the Western context?

The fact is, we don’t know what was meant by “monasteries owning slaves” as Daoxuan’s own writings show many different types of “slavery” and also that they often sold themselves into “slavery” and were often released. Also, monasteries were not allowed to buy or sell slaves and it was encouraged that “slaves” should be set free or ordained.

And again, the issue is “what is slavery?” How many “slaves” preferred serving the monasteries as opposed to working some other plot of land that had no protection from bandits or whatnot, so much so that they sold themselves into “slavery”? I’ve heard some argue that our own use of prison labor is “slavery” and even some argue that making children do chores is a form of “slavery.” Four hundred years from now some may say that Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed slavery because he made his children do the dishes.

And also, these are the actions of individual Buddhists and Buddhist monasteries throughout the ages and across the globe. It has nothing to do with the core of Buddhism or Buddhist teachings.

Also, on an unrelated note, I find it amusing that this article states that thinking Buddha Dharma is anti-slavery is “modernist”, yet this website has an article about “Buddhism for vampires” and talks about dark romanticism.

There is nothing even remotely “romantic” about actual vampires in folklore and that idea didn’t take hold until Anne Rice. Vampires were about as sexy as Cujo throughout the existence of the folklore until very recently. The idea of a “blood drinking Fabio” is a lot more modern and Western than saying Buddha Dharma is against slavery and sexism.

Know thy self

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